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Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries

by Glenn Erickson Nov 06, 2018

These wartime docu-propaganda films are fascinating, but critic Joseph McBride’s critical accompaniment is even better, nailing the meaning of five groundbreaking works of ‘indoctrination’ and giving us a refreshing revisionist take on one of America’s more revered film directors.


Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries
Prelude to War, The Battle of Russia (1&2), The Negro Soldier, Tunisian Victory, Your Job in Germany
Olive Films
1942-1945 / B&W / 2:35 1:85 widescreen / 1:37 flat Academy / 310 min. / Street Date November 6, 2018 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring: Walter Huston (frequent Narrator).
Introduction and lecture: Joseph McBride
Executive-produced by
Frank Capra


I just realized that this is a big year for the film scholar, biographer and critic Joseph McBride. Not only has he an important new book on the shelves, he plays a significant role in front of and behind the scenes in the finally-finished Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind. It must feel great for Joseph to be so active in his field, while movie screens and cable TV are making him into a minor movie star of the moment. As an added bonus, his performance subtracts forty-five years from his age.

For my money McBride’s contribution to the new Blu-ray (and DVD) release of Olive Films’ Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries is just as impressive. Olive has formatted five major wartime documentary/propaganda/orientation films into a package that explains the famous film director Frank Capra’s considerable contribution to the war effort. Arguably the most successful director of the 1930s, Capra was also a fervent patriot, a ready volunteer to make films for the government, the Army, etc..  George Marshall and even President Roosevelt recognized that Capra was Hollywood’s number one communicator to the public at large.

Capra served as a chief administrator for an entire category of wartime informational films while concentrating on a series called Why We Fight, intended to teach soldiers the nature of the enemy and the importance of opposing the Axis at all costs.

That’s usually where the insight about these movies ends, which ignores a fascinating crossover chapter between American history and film history. Joseph McBride’s contribution to this disc equals the value of the films themselves. Besides introducing each individual film with an informative talk, McBride gives us what amounts to a Thesis Lecture on Frank Capra, in a free-standing opening piece a full fifty minutes long. The fascinating talk overturns much of what we learned about the director from his 1971 autobiography, which for film students of the time Was probably the most-read film book after the Truffaut/Hitchcock book. As it turns out, Capra used his autobio to invent an egocentric myth about his filmic accomplishments.  Capra was intent on presenting himself as the creative dynamo behind everything he touched.

McBride is an articulate and clear-voiced speaker, and the many revelations about Capra play out like a good story. He begins by quoting research showing that Capra falsified much of his early life and career. Although a good student, he wasn’t good enough to pursue engineering, and when he got into the movies, he turned to directing because his writing skills weren’t competitive. But he exuded self-confidence and excelled in motivating people in group efforts, both good qualities for directing. As for his enormous ego, that was essential for going nose-to-nose with a tyrannical mogul like Columbia’s Harry Cohn.

More importantly,  McBride stresses that Capra didn’t always share the democratic values championed in his movies. We’re surprised to discover that American Madness wasn’t made to support Roosevelt’s New Deal. The ‘important’ films that Capra decided he should make exalted nostalgic values while showing a great distrust for the public at large — idealized or ‘cute’ as individuals, his citizens too easily form into panicked mobs when banks falter, or fall under the spell of despotic politicians.

Capra became practically a ‘film czar’ during the war, pushing his fellow Hollywood conscript-ees to give up their enormous salaries to make these important propaganda pictures. Some filming took place in combat areas, but Capra stayed behind a desk, taking responsibility for the films’ content and effectiveness. We find that early in 1942, when the military first fully briefed its filmmakers on the state of the fighting, the news was so bad that Capra and John Huston expressed concern that the war might already be lost.

We’re also surprised to learn that the Why We Fight films were not considered a full success. The many vivid images of Nazi & Japanese military might and barbaric brutality intimidated our freshly- minted soldiers. Many feared that they were in over their heads.

McBride carefully modulates his take on Frank Capra. It’s too easy to classify him as an egotistical audience-manipulator. Although a glory hog and self-promoter, his contribution to the war effort was considerable. Direct access to his friend George Marshall, the general at the very top of the command chain, was often required to obtain what he needed to keep his film units going. Capra could have stayed in Hollywood and got even richer, but he instead put in this vital service to his country. His postwar career never recovered.

The 52 minutes of Prelude to War (1942) contains some of the best-organized propaganda ever produced. Imagine how a farm kid ignorant of world affairs would react to the message that a battle of worlds was underway, a conflict visualized as twin planets of precious Freedom and black Evil. Simplified history depicts Germans as ambitious militarists eager for a second chance to conquer the world, and the Japanese as subhuman monsters raping huge swaths of China and Indochina. The all-American voice of Walter Huston spells out a narrative of international treachery. The moral lines are clear. It’s our job to save the world, bolstered by our massive production potential.

Elaborate special effects show the opposing ‘Free’ and ‘Slave’ worlds floating in space; these spacey visuals and the close-up of the Liberty Bell link the Why We Fight series with Capra’s later It’s a Wonderful Life. But the most dramatic visual element of the wartime propaganda pix are the amazing animated maps, presumably done by Disney artists. Stabbing daggers crush countries, while pools of blood ooze across conquered territory. Giant arrows on global projections show where armies are moving and how defenses are mounted. I daresay that these films were the first time that many Americans really paid attention to the topography of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In WW1 the war had simply been, ‘over there.’

McBride tells us that when Capra asked his superiors for an ideological game plan, he was told that nobody had one and that he should just make it up. This first Why We Fight epic therefore gives us the works, painting a vision of an America so unified, decent and church-going-apple-pie idealized that any young man would be motivated to volunteer to fight. Capra’s writers, composers and editors manipulate heart-wrenching visuals with consummate skill, culminating in an image of the Liberty Bell in full swing behind the optimistic V for victory.

McBride calls the two-part The Battle of Russia (1943) the best of the shows from an entertainment point of view. Captured Nazi footage is augmented by simply amazing Soviet combat film of tank battles and cannon barrages. The propagandizing is really shameless, with scenes from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky used to show medieval Russians repelling barbaric German hordes. But the depiction of the scope and ferocity of war is indeed sobering — the hundred minutes of footage shows the Russians burning everything of use as they retreat before Hitler’s armies. The mass atrocities still shock, particularly German footage of Russian peasants shaking with horror over their abused and slaughtered women and children. The animated maps don’t need the exaggeration of daggers and spreading pools of blood — the siege of Leningrad and the battles for Stalingrad and Moscow seem to cover an area half the size of the United States.

The evasions and outright lies told in the interest of the war effort need to be noted — Stalin’s Russia is outrageously presented as being as free and just as the U.S.. Capra’s screenwriters were just following the official Washington line that prompted the scandalously false image of Russia in the Hollywood picture Mission to Moscow. Yet viewers should respect the Russians all the more. Their population took by far the war’s worst punishment, and it can be argued that their armies suffered a majority of the losses militarily defeating Hitler on the ground. When Stalin was sacrificing millions of citizens to resist the Nazis, we were just getting started with an invasion of North Africa. The film’s propaganda spin is distorted, but the overall facts of the fighting are not. Even critic James Agee, who often doubted the sincerity of wartime informational fare, called this one of the best films of 1943.

The writers of Casablanca Julius and Philip Epstein contributed to the script of The Battle of Russia, and because of his Russian background director Anatole Litvak was heavily involved as well. When the time came for political show hearings investigating Communist influence in Hollywood, the makers of every pro- Soviet wartime film came under suspicion, even Frank Capra.

The Negro Soldier (1944) tackles the major job of persuading black Americans to support the war and send their sons off to fight it. An enthusiastic gloss on history explains that famous black men participated in all of America’s wars, while somehow avoiding the entire subject of slavery and discrimination. Brave infantry units fight in WW1, but the show doesn’t explain that the Army wasn’t integrated until 1948 and that the handsome black soldiers we see will mostly serve in logistics & support roles, not combat. Joseph McBride drops the major bombshell that the military really wasn’t fully integrated until 1954, when Eisenhower ordered his generals to stop evading the edict.

The show is envisioned as a sermon preached in a church brimming with non-stereotyped blacks. Gospel hymns are sung including ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’; the march that opens and closes the show is orchestrated in swing time. As pointed out by McBride, what makes the sermon work is the minister played by the show’s writer, Carlton Moss. That Capra’s organization would allow a black writer to work on the show is in itself a feat of democratization. Moss’s preacher is not the folksy, somewhat demeaning stereotype seen in Sullivan’s Travels, but an un-accented educated professional. McBride tells us that at the war’s end Moss didn’t bother to pursue a Hollywood career. He knew he’d face the stone wall of discrimination seen in the political advocacy film Strange Victory.

Joseph McBride uses his introduction for Tunisian Victory (1944), a joint venture of U.S. and English government filmmakers, to demonstrate how a propaganda film could go wrong. Less well conceived and organized than the other shows, it uses patronizing theatrical voiceovers, with actors like Leo Genn, Burgess Meredith and Bernard Miles playing ‘ordinary soldiers’ with contrasting Cockney and Midwestern accents. John Ford did the same in some of his Navy docus, with the voices of familiar Hollywood stars like Dana Andrews and Jane Darwell. The final message is a celebration of an Anglo-American unity that apparently was a complete fantasy.

The direction was split up as well. When a quantity of combat film was lost at sea, a great deal of armored desert fighting had to be faked in retakes filmed in Southern California and Florida, reportedly by John Huston. Director-producer Roy Boulting worked with Capra (image top of review) and Hugh Stewart and Anthony Veiller directed parts of the movie as well.

Despite that, Tunisian Victory does an excellent job of explaining the strategies of the North African campaign, from its shaky beginnings to the liberation of Tunis. The film insists that liberating North Africa is essential to keep Germany and Italy from pushing East and eventually linking up with the Japanese in India; McBride’s narration tells us that the Allies invaded North Africa first because, had the inexperienced armies failed in a direct, premature invasion of France, the result might have been a disaster.

The relatively short film Your Job in Germany (1945) is an excellent choice for inclusion. Some of the Why We Fight films were shown to ordinary audiences but this strictly military picture was intended to indoctrinate G.I.s sent to occupy Germany directly after the victory. It would be an excellent opener for Billy Wilder’s comedy A Foreign Affair, which satirizes the occupation and makes light of the considerable fraternization that occurred. Your Job is instead a stern lecture telling soldiers not to have any personal social contact with Germans and to Never trust them: men, women and children. An opening title on surviving copies indicates that it was meant to be screened after one of the harrowing film compilations of concentration camp atrocities. The text insists that Germans harbor a great inherent evil that the victory has not neutralized.

The screenplay is by Theodor Geisel, later known as Dr. Seuss. His hilarious Private SNAFU cartoons are loaded with cynical, sarcastic black humor. Some of the same sarcasm comes through here, without the humor. We see particularly snide juxtapositions of images: happy dancing Bavarians intercut with victims of genocide. It’s unsubtle and tasteless, and it shows how seriously the Army brass considered the problem. There were indeed violent ‘werewolf’ resistance incidents by unrepentant Nazis and Hitler Youth, as later depicted in Sam Fuller’s thriller Verboten!

Another feature film, Fox’s The Big Lift shows a U.S. airman taken in by a dishonest Berlin fraulein eager to use him to reunite with her POW boyfriend. But even as The Big Lift and A Foreign Affair were released, U.S. policy did a complete turnaround. When the Soviets took over as enemy #1, propaganda suggesting the persistence of Nazi evil vanished, and the feature films warning of neo-Nazi resurgences were suddenly obsolete. Your Job in Germany now feels overly harsh and oppressive in its condemnation of the entire German populace: “someday they may be allowed to rejoin the community of decent nations.” (para.)

Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries is an impressive disc. Although all the films herein are in the Public Domain, most previous video releases were from substandard sources. The encodings here are better, although no revelation in terms of image quality.

They look too good to be reformat bump-ups from NTSC to HD, but there’s little evidence of restoration. Contrast is a little light overall, no cleanup is present and some shots are not 100% stable. The good news is that the films have not been degraded by excessive digital clean-up. I saw several of these pictures back at UCLA in original 35mm prints, and it must be said that the quality of the originals varied as well. If comprised of newly-filmed footage, a wartime government or Signal Corps film looked as good as a studio feature. But montage-based shows sourced from variable-quality newsfilm, file film, and existing docus would all be several generations removed from original negatives. Add to that footage provided by foreign governments and captured German footage, and the quality was all over the map. Since everything would have to be duped again, these productions presented a challenge for labs and optical departments. That’s why we see built-in scratches, instability and occasional frame lines.

That said, the shows look good, if not exceptional, and better than I’ve seen them elsewhere on video.

I’ve already remarked on the excellence of the Joseph McBride ‘extra’ lecture material, which is the really important content here. Out of context, these shows can be confusing and occasionally disturbing. McBride provides the necessary information to help us realize that, as morale-boosting propaganda material meant to be a psychological weapon of war, Capra’s Why We Fight series is often admirable in its restraint. Yes, the shows are definitely intended to whip up strong emotions and even to teach soldiers and civilians to hate the enemy. Considering the war crimes involved, screamed profanity would have been justified. When compared to some of the rhetoric commonly seen in wartime sloganeering, ads and morale propaganda, these pictures are fairly temperate. For instance, the word ‘Japs’ is heard a lot here. But it was so frequently spoken in wartime movies and in print, that it didn’t become verboten for years. As an example of the kind of ugly hatred that was considered acceptable during the war, I include below an ad for an exploitative non-governmental ‘documentary.’

Olive is to be lauded for going to the trouble to commission English subtitles for these shows, and also the lecture & introductions by Joseph McBride. This makes the disc fully acceptable for college use, especially where regulations require hearing-impaired accessibility to all audio-visual teaching aids.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Joseph McBride introductions to each film, plus a longer opening piece on Frank Capra.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 4, 2018


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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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